The perception of empowerment differs, depending on your conditioning, gender and even the kind of society that you inhabit. I am not talking about what is the right or incorrect definition of empowerment, but how an act that may seem empowering on the surface, may in fact be an action to find a way around systemic oppression, which shouldn’t be there in the first place. A recent incident has challenged our perception of empowerment, forcing us to ask, whether we should celebrate a young girl’s achievement or hang our heads in shame collectively, for putting her in a situation where she simply had no other way out.

The incident in question is of 15-year-old Roshni Bhadouriya from Madhya Pradesh’s Bhind district, who scored 98.5 percent in the State Board Class 10 exams recently. The young girl would cycle to school in Mehgaon town (12 km away from her home) and back, every day. Daughter of a farmer, Roshni wants to be an IAS officer. “I am told that a collector can do a lot of good work. I don’t know much about it, but I’d like to be a collector and bring change,” she said in an interview.

Also Read: Can Bollywood Deal With Women Empowerment More Subtly?

At first glance, this looks like an inspiring story of a young girl, who braved economical and social challenges to not only attain education, but to ace in her exams. We might tell ourselves or our children, look at what all she has achieved despite so many challenges. But then slowly other questions creep up on you. Why did this girl have to  cycle for 24 km every day in the first place? Why, after more than seven decades of attaining Independence, do the children of this country still face oppression? Oppression at the hands of a system and society which is indifferent towards their plight. Which only sits up and takes notice, when they do something extraordinary, and then applauds them with fervour, to hide its own failures.

There is no dearth of such stories in recent times. A fifth semester BA English student Namitha Narayana was seeking better connectivity at her home near Kottakkal, Kerala, so that she could attend online classes. She had to climb up on the rooftop of her house. Only when her photo went viral, did the officials of a private service provider come to her aid. In 2017, we read the story of 19-year-old Neetu Sharma, from Rajasthan, who had to deliver milk to be able to fund her education, because her father didn’t have money to spare on it. We see the courage of these young girls, their desperation to succeed as well, but why do we fail to acknowledge what must have pushed these girls to do what they did. And could it have been avoided?

SOME QUESTIONS:

  • Fifteen-year-old Roshni Bhadouriya has to ride 24 km every day to attend school. Why did she have to endure this ordeal?
  • Why must young girls in our country fight so hard to attain education, which is their basic right?
  • While we applaud the courage of these young girls, we need to ask ourselves, how have we failed them?

For instance, in Kerala, the State Water Transport Department ran a 70-seater boat, for three days so that a 17-year-old student from a remote backwater island in Kuttanad could attend her SSLC exams. When you read such stories, you know that our authorities and we as a society could have done more for these children, if we wanted to. No girl should have to ride on a cycle for a day just to get home, or sell milk to educate and empower herself. Similarly, Roshni’s dedication to studying is awe-inspiring for sure, but no child should have to struggle so much to have access a basic right that they are entitled to.

According to the 2018 Annual Status of Education Report, 13.5 percent of girls in India between the ages of 15 and 16 were out of school in the said year. Concerns over sexual safety, conservative gendered norms which deem education unnecessary for girls, lack of infrastructure and accessibility to schools in far-flung areas, these and many more factors, put our girls in a very tough spot. Some like Roshni fight and scrape their way through these deterrents, others simply give up, to no fault of their own.

Also Read: Sreedhanya Suresh, Kerala’s First Woman Tribal IAS Officer, Is Now Asst Collector Of Kozhikode

So, while these young girls need to be applauded for the courage and grit they have shown to survive and succeed, we cannot absolve ourselves of the guilt of having failed them on numerous levels; in providing better infrastructure, better connectivity, liberation from the social stigma which still thinks that girls do not “need” higher education, and access to the latest technology which could have made their lives so much easier. Imagine what they can achieve when they have proper support and guidance. When they don’t have to worry about how they will manage to study or get to school the next day.

Picture Credit: Metrossaga

The views expressed are the author’s own.

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